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Isolde Ahlgrimm (Harpsichord)

Born: July 31, 1914 - Vienna, Austria
Died: October 11, 1995 - Vienna, Austria

The Austrian harpsichordist, Isolde Ahlgrimm, was an important pioneer in the revival of Baroque and Classical keyboard instruments in her native city, and later, throughout Europe and the USA.

Isolde Ahlgrimm's early training as a pianist at the Musikakademie in Vienna occurred under the instruction of such notables as Viktor Ebenstein, Emil von Sauer and Franz Schmidt. In 1934 she met the musical instrument collector, Dr Erich Fiala, whom she married in 1938. His activities opened up the world of early instruments to her. In 1937, for the sum of twenty Austrian schillings, the couple acquired their first keyboard instrument, a 1790 fortepiano by Michael Rosenberger. Using this piano, Ahlgrimm began her career as a specialist on early keyboard instruments with the first in her notable series of Concerte für Kenner und Liebhaber, given in Viennaís Palais Palffy in February 1937. This series was to continue uninterrupted through the war years and beyond until 1956, when Ahlgrimm and Fiala were divorced, and the important collection which they had gathered was dispersed.

Isolde Ahlgrimmís career as a harpsichordist also began in 1937, when a new instrument was commissioned from the Ammer brothers in Eisenberg, Germany. Though not a precise historical copy, Ahlgrimmís first harpsichord was considerably more classical in design and construction than the Serien-Instrumente which this firm produced after the war, and reflected the interraction of the builders with Dr Ulrich Rück (whose historic keyboard instruments later became the nucleus of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum collection in Nürnberg). In 1943 Ahlgrimm performed her first all harpsichord programme, which consisted of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) by J.S. Bach, a composer with whose music Ahlgrimm was to become closely identified. From 1951 through 1956, she devoted herself to performing and recording (for the Dutch company Philips) nearly all of Bachís harpsichord music. This celebrated venture included the solo works, chamber music with obbligato harpsichord and the concertos for solo and duo harpsichord with orchestra. This ensemble was led by the violinist Rudolf Baumgartner, and also included Alice Harnoncourt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Kurt Theiner (all of whom played string instruments of the Amati school, hence the name: the Amati Orchestra). The Amati Orchestra was one of the first ensembles to perform on carefully restored period instruments, using gut strings, appropriate bows and low pitch. It was Ahlgrimmís and Fialaís example which, in part, influenced Gustav Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the formation of their own instrument collections.

Isolde Ahlgrimm included among her Bach programmes such then controversial works as the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue (BWV 1080), and was one of the first performing musicians to argue for performance of the latter work on the harpsichord. In addition to her Bach Cycle, Ahlgrimm performed (but unfortunately, never recorded) all the Sonatas, Rondos and Fantasias of W.A. Mozart in a series of concerts in Vienna in 1950. For this W.A. Mozart Cycle she used three different original Viennese fortepianos from the 1780ís and 1790ís. By 1943, Ahlgrimm had dropped the modern piano entirely. Henceforth, she used it only for the performance of the chamber music of her friend, Richard Strauss, who included a harpsichord part in his last opera, Capriccio. Shortly after its premiere in Munich in 1942, Ahlgrimm performed in this work under the composerís direction in Vienna. Later, the composer compiled a suite of dances from the opera, and composed a special concert ending for Ahlgrimmís own use. The resulting piece, the Capriccio Suite for harpsichord, was first performed by Isolde Ahlgrimm at the composerís request after the war, in 1946. The autograph score, which was in Ahlgrimmís possession throughout the rest of her life, remains unpublished.

Isolde Ahlgrimmís performances of Baroque music represented a radical departure from the distinctly twentieth century interpretations by the much more famous Wanda Landowska and her followers. Most obviously, Ahlgrimmís harpsichord performances contained far fewer registration changes (her instrument had hand stops rather than pedals to change registers), and displayed less reliance on the massive ritardandi and other anachronistic performance practices which were hallmarks of Landowskaís style. Ahlgrimmís emphasis was more on articulation and the rhetorical traditions on which the music was based. This concentration became more pronounced in her later performing and teaching than is evident from the J.S. Bach recordings for Philips, and it was the beginning of an approach to the performance of 18th century music which was later further developed by Gustav Leonhardt (who was well acquainted with Ahlgrimm in the early 1950ís during his professorship at the Vienna Musikakademie) and his students. Ahlgrimmís relaxed technique - so different from the Russian pianistic tradition which was the basis of Landowskaís approach to the Pleyel harpsichord (which the great Polish virtuoso helped to design) - was based on her study of eighteenth century sources, especially François Couperin, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Rameau and Türk. Her early experience with genuine 18th century instruments was also a contributing factor in her essentially historical approach to performance on both the harpsichord and fortepiano. As an early keyboard specialist, she was basically self-taught.

Isolde Ahlgrimm was a professor at the Vienna Academy for Music (later the Musikhochschule) between 1945 and 1949, and again from 1964 to 1984. She also held a faculty position at the Salzburg Mozarteum from 1958 to 1962. Her performing activities took her throughout Europe and later to the USA and Japan. She was a jury member at the Festival of Flanders harpsichord competition in Bruges in 1968, 1971 and 1977. Throughout her career, Ahlgrimm published many articles on the performance of Baroque music, as well as a harpsichord method based on historical source material. Unpublished at the time of her death was an Encyclopedia of Ornamentation, on which she worked for over twenty years. Between 1975 and 1990, her services to music were recognized with the highest awards from the country of Austria, the city of Vienna and that cityís Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst. A biography of Isolde Ahlgrimm and a Gedenkschrift collection of articles pertaining to historical keyboard instruments, published in her honour are due to appear in 1996.


In front of the Hofburg palace in Vienna (1926) [1]

Aged 20 (1934) [2]

Her life's work [3]


At the harpsichord [12]

Playing at home (1943) [7]

Looking at Bach portrait (1951) [5]


At the recording sessions for the Bach harpsichord concertos with the Amati Orchestra (1955) [6]

With her husband, the conductor Erich Fiala (1954) [8]

With Erich Fiala [9]

In Vienna (1956) [11]

Publicity photo (1960's) [4]

Portrait (1980) [10]

Recording sessions for Philips (Early 1950's) [13]

Recording sessions for Philips (Early 1950's) [14]

Author: Peter Watchorn (November 1995)
Contributed by
Peter Watchorn (February 2006), Teri Noel Towe (Photos in the lower line, May 2007)

Isolde Ahlgrimm: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works

Links to other Sites

Isolde Ahlgrimm: Harpsichordist, mentor and friend (Baroque Music Club)
Isolde Ahlgrimm, 1914-95 - Watchorn XXIV (1): 187 - Early Music


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